“O tempora. O mores.” Will the American republic survive the continuing corrosion of political norms?

The American republic today and the Roman republic in the years following Cicero’s consulship (63 BCE) have enough similarities to entertain an interesting comparison. They are also different enough as to make the drawing of firm predictions specious. Nevertheless, there are shared factors that offer warning signs for today from the fall of the ancient republic.

In particular is the vital role norms play in a democracy. One recent scholarly work has posited that “a crucial ingredient for securing long-lasting democracies is the development of norms of cooperation among political players”. While another contends “Leaders defiantly violate the norms that give life to democratic institutions, with disastrous results for domestic and foreign policy and for the democratic institutions themselves”.

Dean Hammer has written on “the parallels between the last years of the Roman Republic and contemporary America”. The Roman downfall was not because of “the lack of a constitution by which legal power could have been employed” but due to a declining view “of the ability of political institutions to project the community into the future”. The last decades of the republic, Hammer adds, saw “important alterations in the norms that provide the background context by which individuals working through institutions can get things done”.  Hammer writes that “Violations of norms became the pretext for more violations”.

Much like today’s America, Hammer argues the final decades of the Republic saw “an increasing polarisation in how the other side was viewed” to the point, as Cicero despaired, “where there are two senates and two separate peoples”.  Hammer notes “there is not even a clearly observable moment when the Republic stops being the Republic”. Only a period marked by “the elevation of individuals who offer solutions by promising to bypass those ineffective and unresponsive institutions”. And like Rome, disillusionment with institutions like Congress, the Presidency, and the judiciary to solve problems makes radical alternatives appealing.

The republican institutions of Rome had come into disrepute, as the disparity in wealth between the elite and the general populace widened, war became a commonplace, legal processes corrupt, and the Catiline insurrection’s reverberations shook Rome. Still, Hammer argues, replacement of the republic by the empire “was a slow depletion of the norms that sustained a Roman participatory system until, in the end, there was nothing to animate a republican spirit”.

The American republic won’t fall as a result of “authoritarian demagogues peddling populist solutions to difficult problems” nor is it totally correct to say “the poor performance of the economy is the main explanation for the rise of populism in the rich democracies”. While this has some explanatory value, it’s also clear that the off-shoring of industry to Asia was not the only factor influencing “the former blue-collar workers of the rust belt states to move their votes from Democrat to Trump” in 2016. It would be a serious mistake to regard as gullible or irrational those supporting politicians who explicitly advocate not just breaking but abandoning the long established norms that shape political behaviour in the advanced ‘western’ economies.

Yes, globalisation and neoliberalism have have had a negative impact on the quality of government services in the major economies and hollowed out their industrial sectors, leading to lower standards of living for many. Conventional policy approaches haven’t been able affect wealth inequality, poverty, or homelessness. The widespread dissatisfaction with the established political parties and conventional politics for these failures is one thing, but to reject totally the norms of governance and to turn to those who offer radical solutions is another altogether.

The attractiveness of unorthodox political alternatives is not simply an economic phenomenon. The rise of ethno-nationalism, national-conservatism, or identitarianism are more than the epiphenomena of economics. These ideologies are contagious and highly communicable; they sharpen concerns about immigration, public morality, and promote unease with liberalism. They are corrosive of the norms that allow democracy to flourish without violence, intolerance, and oppression in diverse and pluralistic societies. And they flourish when ‘normal’ politics doesn’t deliver.

The norms of behaviour, tolerance and political cooperation are central to the effective operation of a pluralistic democracy. The constraints on the abuse of power which informally proscribe legal but excessively opportunistic actions have been loosened over time in America and across the world.  The coexistence of groups with fundamentally different ideas and objectives is essential for liberal democracy to work. This requires, however, acceptance of norms as well as laws; norms that are well-established and respected and are layered over the operation of the legal framework.

More than any other time, it is when the norms break down or are no longer observed by those in power that liberal democracy comes under threat. Concern over this development has heightened since the first Donald Trump term. Since then the erosion of the norms that allow government to proceed in a manner that can be anticipated has been the subject of attention in America and Europe.

Previously the norms that prohibit an American president from interfering with the operations of law enforcement and the intelligence agencies, oblige them to refrain from self-dealing and require their assets to be placed in a blind trust, and shape and limit a president’s executive pardoning power, were strong and overwhelmingly observed.

America appears to have entered a period in which the norms that have upheld formal political and constitutional institutions and conditioned the behaviour and actions of political actors have been seriously weakened. Judicial decisions are regularly challenged and  courts disrespected, congressional impeachment proceedings politicised, election results denied, and bipartisanship seems unachievable.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric this time around is even more extreme and norm-breaking than in 2016.

Like Cicero’s first Catiline oration, today’s observer might lament, “O tempora. O mores”. The norms, customs, and conventions that have been the foundations of American republicanism are dissolving. Perhaps more precipitously than in the Roman Republic, liberal democracy seems to be passing in America.

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.